Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Simply paying lip service to victims is just not enough

Attorney General John Larkin

Has anybody got a really good recipe for fudge? Not the iron-hard, jaw-breaking stuff that you have to shatter with a special silver hammer, but the soft, buttery kind that goes down easily and makes you forget all your problems.

No? Ah, well, it's too late now anyway. The opportunity for a creative spot of sweet ambiguity has passed. Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan have finally escaped from the preposterously obscure, self-indulgent and arcane demands of our political parties and flown home to the US.

I have this really clear mental image of the look that passed between the two ex-diplomats as they buckled their seatbelts on that final flight out of Dublin on New Year's Eve.

I imagine a slight widening of the eyes, a disbelieving shake of the head and, finally, a broad grin of relief at escaping from a place where the logistics of flying a small piece of coloured material are deemed to be more important than jobs, housing, health and education put together, going by the ridiculous amounts of time and energy devoted to the issue.

Besides, the season for fudge – and all other festive excess – is now over. In the first chilly days of the new year, it's all about bracing walks, lettuce for dinner and a careful hand with the pennies.

So in the same spirit of clarity, focus and austerity, may I suggest that the time is right for an honest conversation about a disparate group of people who regularly find themselves on the receiving end of a lorryload of fudge: victims?

Now, have you got your serious, respectful face on? Because that's the face we must use when we are speaking about victims.

Never mind that those who have been directly damaged by the Troubles have, thus far, been treated with precious little seriousness, or genuine respect, by those who owe them the most: our leaders in government.

As long as the politicians have the correct expression – earnest, concerned, sympathetic – and make the appropriate noises about placing victims at the heart of any negotiated deal, then it seems that that is considered sufficient. During the Haass talks, all parties agreed the rights and feelings of victims should be at the centre of the process. Too bad, then, that the big two, in particular, were so hung up with their own petty ploys of brinkmanship, they didn't actually manage to secure the deal.

But, then, that's par for the course. In spite of the convincing show of hand-wringing over victims' perceived needs, they always seem to come in second to other, more pressing, matters – like parading, or the aforementioned display of bits of coloured cloth.

Variously ignored, manipulated, patronised, flattered, or deceived, the walking wounded of our despicable little war have been treated with much less true compassion than they deserve.

Their very existence is a constant reminder of the horrors that those of us who were fortunate enough to escape physically, or mentally, unscathed from the conflict would, if we are honest, rather forget. More pertinently, their continued presence is also a powerful living reminder to those who bear responsibility, directly, or indirectly, for their pain.

Finding a meaningful, not tokenistic, way to honour, mark and acknowledge that loss and to provide victims with the means to help themselves cope with it should be a matter of priority.

But respect for victims and survivors should also mean that we do not ask too much of them, over-compensating for past neglect by fetishising the status of victimhood. There is a growing tendency to treat victims as the natural moral arbiters of the peace process, simply by virtue of the past trauma they have suffered.

This was seen very clearly in the response to Attorney General John Larkin's (below) proposal for an end to Troubles-era prosecutions, which caused deep offence, anger and hurt to many.

Such an emotional, visceral response is entirely understandable. Yet, just as we cannot afford to ignore the needs of victims, neither can we afford to allow them the power of veto on the pace and nature of change.

Such a delicate balancing act will be difficult to achieve and there's no indication our politicians are up to the challenge. But resolving to approach victims honestly, not as a faceless political problem, but as a group of individuals with complex and contradictory needs and opinions, would be an important start.

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